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How Smart Are Bass?

How Smart Are Bass? Intelligence or insticts? A point-counterpoint discussion between two highly regarded fishery biologists.

By

 
Big Bass

Smart enough not to be caught too easily, that's for sure!
   Almost half of the human brain is devoted to vision. Our large brains translate our eyes input into finely detailed mental images. There is ample evidence the small brain of bass and other fishes doesn't produce nearly as detailed a mental image. That's why a Rapala or a shoestring can look like something to eat to a bass while a three year old human child can tell the difference between these things and food at a glance. In human terms, it is doubtful that bass can "think" at all.
   But observations of bass responses to specific stimuli reveal a number of facts about how well bass remember and learn. And learning is problem solving or "thinking" to some degree.
   Bass don't see in detail most of the time. Apparently they judge whether or not an item is prey by its overall shape, movement pattern, and (sometimes) flashes of specific colors. This is why we hook them on hard lures and plastics. But, if conditioned by repeated exposure, pain, and rewards, they have learned in experiments to discriminate between 8 pound monofilament lines of various colors, distinguishing between yellow, high-viz blue, and clear monofilament lines. Conclusion: sometimes they don't see details, but they can see detail if it is clearly and directly associated with successful feeding or the avoidance of harm.
   Bass can remember "important" facts, places, and events for long periods of time: not just a few minutes as some believe. They know where they are, where they've been, and can easily return to these places after being away for at least a year. They associate sensory stimuli with rewards or punishments. But, they have difficulty associating separate events with each other. Thus, they don't necessarily connect the blue worm that hooked them a few minutes ago with the red or blue worm now before them. Yet, sometimes they do learn to avoid specific lures or lure colors. Some lures work for a while, and then fade in effectiveness as more and more bass learn to avoid them. Some aspect of these lures (color, action, sound, whatever) gives the bass a clue that is associated with danger.
   Researchers have ranked bass as slightly more intelligent than many other fishes. They have more ability to adapt to change. Carp have been found to be smarter still. Once exposed to angling, carp may be harder to catch than bass. Trout aren't as mentally flexible as bass; but, apparently because they feed on small insects and must distinguish between fast moving, tiny flies and bits of trash, trout have much more discerning vision. Which is smarter, trout or bass? I suggest, neither. They just are adapted to different needs. They are about as "smart" as they need to be to cope with their environment and its natural problems.
   Anglers, artificial lures, and lines, are "unnatural" problems. Problems which bass have only just begun to evolve defenses. After about another 100 years and 50 generations of catch and release, with its associated mortality, I predict we will find many evolved black bass that are "too smart" to bite any moving thing that doesn't look and behave exactly like real food, or with a line and hook visible. These "smart" bass still won't be able to add or predict when the next drought will arrive, but they will be better able avoid the dangers anglers create in their environment.
   Heavily pressured bass are harder to catch because they have focused on one or more of the warning signals produced by typical anglers. It may be noises of troll motors, the pressure waves created by a moving boat, visual or vibrational evidence of a line moving through water, unnatural movement of shape of a lure, boat or sonar noises, or a million other potential negative stimuli that a bass may receive while being reeled to a bass boat and netted.
   At the same time, they easily learn to ignore passing outboard motors and noises from overhead docks that are not immediately associated with the "being hooked" experience. Bass learn to ignore jet skis, skiers, and swimmers. I've watched bass underwater as they examined the toes of swimming children and saw them feed while a man hammered to repair his sailboat overhead.
   Bass have obvious mental limitations. They likely never will learn calculus, nor be able to predict when you next will change your lure. But, they do adapt well to their environments. They recognize day-length clues and temperature clues when to spawn. They remember where they spawned last year, or if it's their first spawn, where they were hatched well enough to return there, even if the distance is several miles. They remember where the underwater spring was last year, so they can find the same temperature sanctuary when water again is overheated by a power plant. They learn from their first tentative tasting experiences what prey are routinely catchable, what items taste good and are decent food, and where and how to catch them. They learn to feed in schools for pelagic prey, and to stalk or flush prey near cover edges. They learn to lie in ambush alone when cover is too thick to successfully chase prey.
   They learn to recognize the sound, pressure wave, and visual signatures of approaching predators like striped bass, herons, and otters. They learn to recognize the faint thumps created by schools of turning shad and other baitfish. This learning is rewarded by escape from harm or successful feeding. It is not a surprise, therefore, that they can also learn to recognize and avoid angler's noises, lures, and other sensory signatures.
   But, like all other animal traits, bass intelligence is distributed by the gene pool. Some are smarter than others, with most bass being about average with a few smarter and dumber fish.
   Big bass aren't necessarily smarter. The tracking experiments of John Hope demonstrate that lunkers are quite catchable, if you know where and when they are located so you can cast to them. He recaptured many tagged lunkers once he learned their habitual movement routes. The dominant scientific postulates about why and what bass get big are that those bass born with good genes for growth and that adapt habit patterns and feeding periods that avoid most anglers live longer and thus get bigger. It must, however, help some bass to stay alive to be able to learn to avoid angler tricks.
   Bass are just about as smart as they need to be to survive.

How Smart Are Bass?

..a Counter Point

By Bob Lusk
I have never given bass much credit as thinkers. I know, I know...bass are often smarter than man. A bass would never spend $20,000 on a boat, other thousands on rods and reels and tackle to chase an elusive human in all kinds of weather.
   Bass, in their own right, are intriguing creatures. Every time I handle a double digit bass, my heart throbs, my mind races...I am basically in awe. But, I am not in awe because of their brains. I am in awe because of ol' bigmouth's ability to survive, to live, to have made it to the crest of an unforgiving mountain. I am in awe because that particular fish had the right "stuff'...genetics, food chain, ability to eat while not being eaten. That amazes me. Odds are astronomical that a bass won't live long enough to become huge.
   But, I don't believe for a minute a bass has the ability to think. I completely believe they respond to genetic instincts and conditioning. That's it. I believe bass respond or react to stimuli conditioned by repetition.
   Designed with fairly short, squatty bodies, largemouth bass are built for short bursts of speed, not to cruise. They have an obnoxiously huge mouth, so they can eat big, quick. Therefore, bass are designed to be ambush feeders. They don't think about it. I believe bass seeks specific cover or structure because, instinctively, it provides food and a place to avoid untimely death in the maw of bigger bass. So, big bass were conditioned at a young age to avoid death by snack. Their sensory receptors allow them to repeat and condition.
   Think about it. Fish live, eat, reproduce and avoid being eaten. That's it. Nothing more. If a fish could reason, it would never be eaten, would have a social life and choose it's food from a menu.
   The lateral line sends messages to the brain., "there's movement over there." Bass instinctively move that direction. Vision takes over...if it looks familiar, bass continue the rapid investigation. Then, if it fits inside the mouth, that's where it goes.
   Spawning is instinctive, not thoughtful. As a matter of fact, a huge female bass in the Sharelunker program in Texas met its demise during spawning one year, several years ago. It was repeatedly rammed by a much, much smaller male, less than two pounds. A two pound guy beat up an 18 pound female. What were they thinking? Reproduction is survival and procreation. That's it, nothing more.
   It's absolutely true bass will return a long distance to its safehaven. How does it find it's way? Read a road map? Nope... its instincts, combined with sensory conditioning allows the fish to navigate its way back. Its living space is distinct to the creature...distinct because of smell, water quality, tastes, light...things only a bass can interpret.
   Ask any good fisherman what it takes for a bass to bite and most will tell you the same things. The fish is hungry or angry. Or both. If you can't make it bite from hunger, make it mad by throwing something noisy in its house. A bass will protect its habitat from intruders.
   Research has proven a bass has "memory" which lasts no longer than fifteen minutes. But, repetitive behaviors condition fish. That's why they become "hook smart." It's also why they "learn" to come to fish food. Conditioning...nothing more, nothing less. Take away fish food, fish still come where they are conditioned. They don't think about it at all.
   Fish want food, sex and survival.
   Hmmm...sounds about like half the human population.
   Think about it.

Reprinted with permission from Pond Boss Magazine

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